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April 16, 2024

Shaming is not a productive part of the mask debate

By SHIZHENG TIE | September 19, 2020

COURTESY OF SHIZHENG TIE Shaming anti-maskers is unlikely to make them to change their ways.

As the coronavirus pandemic progresses, Hopkins has appealed to the personal responsibility of students by coining the phrase “JH Needs U,” which soon became a hashtag on social media. In Instagram post, the University asked students to send or post a picture of themselves wearing masks and a quote explaining why they do it, with the intention of inspiring others to follow suit. The caption reads, “Wearing a mask has never been more important.” 

Despite heartwarming responses from students explaining why they mask up, the comment section was full of sarcasm and overt hostility from anti-maskers. One response to the post dismissively reads, “Blah blah blah.” 

Another blaring, now-deleted comment read: “Only uneducated university students believe in moronic nonsense! Please stop the left wing crazy!”

Not only is this insulting to all who are trying to protect themselves and others, but it also dangerously politicizes a public health issue where science should guide actions — not political stances or propaganda. 

The use of the word “uneducated” suggests that anti-maskers assume this insult will hurt Hopkins students more than other names like “sheep” and “hoax.” It also shows that in the eyes of some, mask wearers are all left-wing “intellectuals” who hold a holier-than-thou, woker-than-thou attitude that is intrinsically elitist and out of touch with the common folk. 

I fear this anti-elitism could evolve into anti-intellectualism and disbelief in science. Recent attacks on well-known public health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci make clear the dangers of hostility towards science. 

Out of frustration, people may resort to shaming rhetoric, telling others to “wear a damn mask!” This is often followed by accusations that the anti-masker is putting themselves, those around them and essential workers at risk. While it may be true that refusing to wear a mask puts others in danger, I have found this method to be an unsustainable and unsuccessful strategy of persuasion in our political climate.

The elitist university student is not trustworthy to many members of the American public, who prefer the image of commonplace, normal folk, such as former President George W. Bush and the current president.

Thinking back to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, many reportedly distrusted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because she represented “big government.” Donald Trump did nearly the opposite to appeal to his base by speaking in a blunt, straightforward manner and promising to “drain the swamp” by ridding the government of the rich, the experienced and the “manipulative experts” who use the state to exert control over the people.

His victory proved that this type of messaging worked and that a significant portion of Americans believes that experience means manipulation and intellectualism means arrogance. This reality, along with the alarming growth of anti-intellectualism, proves that shaming is a counterproductive strategy for people to adopt in order to convince others to put on a mask.

Frustration that some people insist on making public health into a political controversy can make it easy to resort to shaming. Yet, the suspicions of anti-maskers are only confirmed when the “so-called intellectuals” act condescending; we are perceived as arrogant and detached from the beliefs and views of common folks. This finger-wagging method only reinforces misunderstanding and mutual hostility. 

I do not claim to know what the best strategy is to encourage mask compliance, but it should be tailored to the specific context and intended audience with a sincere intention for polite communication and productive dialogue. In this unprecedentedly chaotic time, communities and neighbors need to be united, not divided. Shaming each other will get us nowhere.

Shizheng “JJ” Tie is a senior studying Environmental Engineering from Luoyang, China.

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